Mega-Constellations and the Commercial Space

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BACKGROUND ON SATELLITE SYSTEMS

Before delving into the consequences of satellite mega-constellations, it is vital first to grasp what satellites are and what they are consist of. As a result, by explaining the components and materials used in satellites, this chapter is intended to lay a basis for non-specialist readers.
Dan Stillman from NASA answers the question, “What is a Satellite?”. He states that “a satellite is an object that moves around a larger object” (Stillman, 2014). Because the Earth revolves around the Sun, it can be considered a satellite; similarly, the moon revolves around the Earth. However, both the Earth and the Moon are “natural satellites,” and most people think of a “man-made” satellite when they say “satellite.” There, the term satellite refers to spacecraft launched into orbit around the planet or another celestial body (IntelSat, 2022). Dai et al. (2007) explain that communication satellite systems consist of space and ground segments. The space segment consists of the satellites in space, whereas the ground segment consists of user communication devices, ground stations that connect to the terrestrial network, and satellite control and monitoring facilities. Although space segments come in various shapes and sizes, they all have at least two components: an antenna and a power supply. The antenna receives and transmits data, and the power source is either a battery, solar panels that convert sunshine into electricity, or a combination thereof (Stillman, 2014). The following sections will focus on space segment components and resources used in building, operating, and maintaining these components.

Satellites main components

This section will illustrate the two main components of the space segment and the power system. To begin, a typical communication satellite in the space segment comprises a satellite bus and a communication payload. First, there is the satellite bus or platform, which is the satellite’s basic frame and the components that allow it to operate in space (Dai et al., 2007). As shown in Figure 1, the satellite bus comprises structural, thermal, power, attitude control, propulsion, telemetry, tracking, and command (TT&C) subsystems (ibid).
The second component is the communication payload, which establishes connections between communication devices. Antennas, which receive, amplify, and retransmit signals over a defined geographical area, are vital components of a satellite communication payload. The ground control segment monitors and controls these components to complete the satellite mission (Dai et al., 2007).
In addition to the satellite’s body, space missions can last decades, and large communications satellites, require tens of kilowatts to operate correctly. Therefore, a stable continuous power supply is critical to the success of the satellite’s mission (ESA, 2022). The power system accounts for around 20-30% of the spacecraft’s mass and it is mainly utilized for power generating distribution and storage (Baraskar et al., 2022). All of the onboard electronics are powered by two different sources of electricity. The primary source is solar arrays that convert sunlight to electricity. However, the solar panel’s energy collection efficiency is diminished during eclipses. For example, when the Earth blocks the Sun or when a spacecraft moves away from the Sun, individual solar cells degrade unpredictably, deteriorating solar arrays (ibid). Therefore, batteries are used to power onboard electronics as a secondary power source. Batteries constitute a large percentage of the total weight of most satellites; typically, they account for more than ~15-20% of the mass (Dai et al., 2007). The following section will talk about the materials used in satellites as well as in launching and operating them.

Resources used in Satellites

Satellites as machines are made up of various electronic and mechanical components that must resist the vibrations of a rocket launch and then operate in the space environment (IntelSat, 2022). The four materials used in aerospace are metals, non-metallic or polymeric materials, composite materials, and ceramic materials. The most often utilized materials in aerospace systems are metallic materials such as aluminum alloys, titanium alloys, and iron alloys (steels) (Grant & Clyde, 2018). The first element is aluminum, which happened to be the second most often utilized metal in modern society, the following steel. Aluminum is not particularly strong, but it gets significantly stronger when mixed with other metals to form alloys. Aluminum alloys are commonly used in satellites because they are both strong and light (Wassmer, 2015).
The second element is titanium alloys, also known as titanium, which are the ninth most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, with a concentration of roughly 0.6 percent. Titanium is the fourth most abundant structural metal after aluminum, iron, and magnesium. In general, the satellite’s exterior is often built of a lightweight material such as aluminum or titanium, which provides the satellite with the essential structural support to face challenging conditions in space (Dai et al., 2007).
Iron alloys (steels) are the third material utilized in satellite. Steels are the most widely used metallic materials in structural applications worldwide due to their high strength and inexpensive cost. One disadvantage of steel, it has a higher density than aluminum and titanium, which causes the mass of satellite systems to increase (Grant & Clyde, 2018).
On the other hand, for the resources used in satellite power systems, Borthomieu (2014) covers the history of batteries in the satellite industry. The article mentioned that thousands of satellites were powered by nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cad) batteries in space as early as the 1960s. Later, weight became an increasingly important characteristic for satellites towards the turn of the century. Thus, the high specific energy provided by Lithium-ion (Li-ion) technology aided the transition. By the end of 2012, more than 200 satellites had been launched worldwide utilizing Li-ion batteries. Also, by 2014 Li-ion batteries were mentioned in more than 99 percent of satellite contracts (Borthomieu, 2014). Table 1 shows the most common materials used in satellites.
Dallas et. al (2020) explained the launch process of rockets and how rockets require a vast number of catalysts to make it out of the Earth’s atmosphere. Typically, they have between 2, and 4 stages, a lift-off stage, an early launch stage, and the upper stages used at high altitudes. As stages 0 and 1 run out of fuel, they detach from the rocket, and the following successive stage fires. This process is repeated until the rocket reaches its desired final orbit.
Moreover, Dallas et al. (2020) illustrated that the most used fuels in Liquid Rocket Engines (LRE) are kerosene (RP-1), and it will be referred to as kerosene, liquid hydrogen (LOx/LH2), and hypergolic propellant. Kerosene is a commonly used fuel for the first stage of a rocket launch due to its high density and ease of handling compared to LOx/LH2 propellant. It is worth noticing that the emission of CO2 from kerosene is an essential environmental consideration as RP-1 has 34% Carbon content (ibid). For instance, launching Falcon 9, a SpaceX rocket into space, consumed 440 tonnes of kerosene (spaceflight101, 2022). Thereby, it can be noted that the environmental effect of satellite mega-constellations cannot be neglected.
The above background provided a quick summary of the above 50 years of the satellite industry. The next chapter will focus on how the new satellite paradigm and its impact on sustainability have been studied and presented in the literature.

LITERATURE REVIEW

This chapter focuses on the concept of mega-constellations and the evolvement of the satellite industry to the internet age. The second section of the chapter discusses how the literature linked mega-constellations to sustainable development goals. In general, the majority of mega-constellation investigations have focused on environmental impacts. However, the societal consequences of mega-constellations and how they will affect other sectors have been overlooked in the literature.

Mega-Constellations and the Commercial Space

To begin, mega satellite constellations aim to provide worldwide internet coverage. This considerable investment is in response to the ever-increasing demand for low-cost broadband capacity, especially in developing countries with limited access to terrestrial networks (Sánchez
& Wolahan, 2017). Therefore, many commercial operators plan to launch thousands of satellites in low earth orbit LEO to supply global space-based wi-fi (Pardini & Anselmo, 2020). According to the European Space Agency (ESA), 12,720 satellites have been launched throughout the history of the space industry since 1957, currently 5,200 active satellites as of March 2022 (ESA, 2022). In 2020, 1,283 satellites were launched, which stands as the highest number of satellites launches in a year compared to all the previous history of the satellite industry (Mohanta, 2021). Figure 2 shows a graph from Statista (2022) of the acceleration of satellite launches in recent years.
Note: This statistic illustrates the number of active satellites from 1957 to 2021, broken down by year. In 2021, there was an estimated 4,877 operational satellites orbiting the Earth, an increase from 3,291 active satellites in 2020.
As already discussed in the introduction, the number of satellites is expected to increase significantly within the coming years and decades because of the new actors (e.g., SpaceX’s Starlink program and initiatives from Amazon and Samsung). Also, existing satellite companies such as SpaceWork’s annual rate of smaller satellites (nanosat and CubeSats with weights below 50kg) is projected to be 3,000 nano/microsatellites (Christensen, 2016). Between 2019 and 2028, more than 9,900 satellites are expected to be launched, roughly four times the number launched in the preceding decade (2009–2018) (Park et al., 2020). As the commercial space sector expands and new actors enter the space sector, this number will continue to rise to 20,000 satellites by the end of the decade (EU Space Policy, 2019).
Furthermore, in her article “Who owns our orbit », Therese Wood discusses the new space race with a comprehensive analysis and forecast of satellite production and launch services. According to the essay, it is estimated that this race will continue to accelerate, with 15,000 satellites in orbit by 2028. Based on the assumption that 990 satellites will be launched annually, compared to 230 satellites on a yearly average in the previous decade (Wood, 2020). Also, different studies predict that mega-constellations will approximately launch 136,000 new communications satellites in the coming decades (Perks, 2021). The main reason for the surge in satellite launches is broadband services. Therefore, the new space race appears to be collaborative and commercialized, unlike the last space race, a nationalistic struggle between Cold War competitors.
What is striking in Figure 2 is the exploding growth of the number of satellites launches in the 2010s. The main reason for this high rate is a reduction in payload costs. The cost of sending payloads to orbit remained so expensive for years until the breakthrough came in the 2010s with the partially reusable Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets (Baumstarck, 2021). These new types of rockets have driven dramatic cost reductions, and the price to get the payload into Earth’s orbit has fallen, leading to an enormous increase in the number of operational satellites orbiting the Earth (Baumstarck, 2021). Peter Platzer, CEO of Spire Global, confirmed this in an interview about satellites and mega-constellations (Thomsen, 2022). Platzer commented that space-based applications were once developed exclusively by governments, but commercial companies are now leading the way (ibid). There, reusable rockets will not only attain cost savings of satellites launches but also may increase satellite mass production, and satellite technology maturation.
Various studies have assessed the economic impact of mega-constellations. According to a consultancy report from Morgan Stanley, the global space sector might earn $1 trillion or more in income by 2040 (Morgan Stanley, 2020). Additionally, during the 2010s, several countries have increased their space research and development budgets. EU Industry Commissioner Thierry Breton explains why the EU allocates 6 billion Euros to a satellite communication strategy. “Our new connectivity infrastructure will deliver high-speed internet access, serve as a back-up to our current internet infrastructure, increase our resilience and cyber security, and provide connectivity to the whole of Europe and Africa » (Newelectronics, 2022). Furthermore, South Korea’s government has announced an “Industrialization Strategy of Space Technology” to maximize the socio-economic impacts of space technology, as pointed out by Park et al. (2020) when performing an economic analysis of mega-constellations in South Korea. As part of the strategy, there is a plan for transferring satellite technologies from the public to the private domain. Also, in 2019 South Korea’s fundamental space research and development network increased from 60 to 381 organizations with an average annual growth rate of approximately 20.3 percent and a total cost of around 3.8 billion USD (Park et al., 2020).
More economic impacts of the commercial space industry were investigated by Kelly George (George, 2019). By using the input-output analysis industry accounts for 2016 to predict the growth rate. George calculated the average employment change using the 7% growth in the industry during that year, and the result was 36 thousand jobs or a 0.02% increase. For instance, the same year in Florida, where there are launch/landing facilities for satellites, the added employment increased by 973 jobs in real estate sector, 805 in wholesale trade and 716 in hospitals. Therefore, according to George, growth in commercial space industry jobs would positively impact the economy (George, 2019).
Previous research into mega-constellations of satellites has focused on the environmental impacts. Many of these studies agreed that the deployment of mega-constellations in LEO will have a profound and durable overall impact on space activities and operations. Also, many researchers have acknowledged that the potentially damaging effects mega-constellations might have on the LEO debris environment are undeniable. Pardini and Anselmo (2020) predicted that these mega-constellations would increase the current collision rate among satellite objects, which will increase space debris. Similarly, Ian Christensen conducted a literature review study and concluded that space sustainability issues were raised by expanding the commercial space sector. The prominent constellations of small satellites operating in the same orbit significantly increase the number of potential collisions (Christensen, 2016). Also, in other studies, satellite mega-constellation’s reliability is identified as a potentially catastrophic impact on the space debris environment if satellites fail to deorbit (Castet et al., 2009; Sánchez & Wolahan, 2017).
According to Megan Perks, a physicist and astronomer, the most beneficial service satellites and maybe especially mega-constellations can provide is global coverage (Perks, 2021). The concept of a global high-speed internet infrastructure that would connect even the world’s most remote regions appears quite appealing. Nevertheless, Perks raise the question of “how much would such a system cost, and who would be responsible for paying it?”. Perks explained that Starlink, OneWeb, and Amazon Kuiper think that the financial costs of such networks are reasonable, but the rest of the world must pay far more (Perks, 2021). The quantity, value, and mass of satellites will change dramatically in the coming years (Wood, 2020). A significant problem with this kind of acceleration in production is that the resources shipped out into space that we likely can never reuse them.
To sum up, this thesis aims to study the paradox of how a balance can be deviated by some agendas against other agendas or, more specifically, the digital inclusion problem against environmental issues. The following section will reflect the literature on the positive and negative impacts of this acceleration on society and the environment from a sustainability perspective. The concept of sustainability and the UN agenda will be explained. Then data from several studies about how satellite mega-constellations impact selected SDGs will be presented.

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Sustainability and UN Agenda 2030

UNESCO described sustainability as a long-term goal, while sustainable development refers to the many processes and pathways to achieve it (UNESCO, 2021). Back in 2000, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were agreed upon as an essential framework for the development of societies. Although there has been significant progress in several areas, the progress has been uneven, particularly in Africa. Therefore, some MDGs remained off track and therefore new goals were formed (UN General assembly, 2015).
In September 2015, at UN Headquarters in New York, 150 world leaders agreed to new global goals or the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that are even more ambitious than the MDGs (United Nations, 2015). While MDGs helped to halve extreme poverty, this new agenda entitled “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” aims to end it (United Nations, 2015).
In addition, the 2030 Agenda has inclusion at its core with its 17 goals that include 169 targets. Developing the SDGs agenda was proposed by the Open Working Group and continued through a three-year-long transparent, participatory process of different stakeholders and people’s voices. Many stakeholders, especially youth, were involved from the beginning on social media and other platforms. More than 8 million votes worldwide, and 75% of participants were under 30 (United Nations, 2015). By the end of this exercise, 193 Member States of the United Nations embarked and pledged a new strategy “No one will be left behind”. The ambitious new global development agenda recognizes that development will only be sustainable if it remains inclusive (UN General assembly, 2015).

Table of contents :

1 INTRODUCTION
1.1 Background
1.2 Problem Statement
1.3 Research Objectives
1.4 Research Questions
1.5 Delimitations
1.6 Structure of the Thesis
2 BACKGROUND ON SATELLITE SYSTEMS
2.1 Satellites main components
2.2 Resources used in Satellites
3 LITERATURE REVIEW
3.1 Mega-Constellations and the Commercial Space
3.2 Sustainability and UN Agenda 2030
3.3 Existing Research on the Impacts of Satellite Systems on the SDGs
4 THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK
4.1 Business Model Themes Framework
4.2 SDGs Interactions Framework
5 METHODOLOGY
5.1 Research Approach and Research Strategy
5.2 Data Collection Methodologies
5.3 Data Analysis Methodologies
5.4 Research Quality
5.5 Research Ethics
5.6 Limitations
6 RESULTS
6.1 Secondary Data
6.2 Primary Data
7 ANALYSIS AND DISCUSSION
7.1 Business Model Themes Framework Analysis
7.2 SDGs Interactions Framework Analysis
7.3 Discussion
8 CONCLUSION
8.1 Future Research
REFERENCES
APPENDICES
Appendix 1: Online Survey Questionnaires
Appendix 2: Interview Guide

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